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NOVA’s World Teachers’ Day Spotlight, Sana Hilmi Talks About Teaching Foreign Languages and Learning From Her Students

NOVA’s World Teachers’ Day Spotlight, Sana Hilmi Talks About Teaching Foreign Languages and Learning From Her Students

NOVA’s World Teachers’ Day spotlight, Sana Hilmi who is a Foreign Language- Arabic Language professor at Annandale campus talks about her journey here starting off as an ESL NOVA student to becoming a renowned faculty member here at the college. Here she chronicles her journey and why she commits herself to the students she teaches.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am from Baghdad, Iraq and came to the United States, first settling in Maryland. I then transferred from Montgomery College to NOVA in 1993. I was first an ESL student starting at the Annandale campus. After taking my initial language courses part-time, I then took courses full-time toward a degree. I then became a work-study student while at NOVA and worked at the information desk.

I proudly graduated from NOVA with an associate’s degree in liberal arts with a focus in foreign language, in which I also took French courses. I then went to George Mason and graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 1996.

After completing my bachelors degree, I started at NOVA as a staff member, in which was first listed as a part-time position as a language arts administrative assistant in the language and literature division. The position then became full-time due to another staff member leaving.

I worked in that division for a couple of years, and I was the asked to help start the inception of Arabic program. I helped find a teacher, and after the adjunct quit weeks before the program started, I then became the adjunct faculty member because it was already a filled course. Thankfully, I had some prior master’s course work, and since I helped create the program -- the President of the college at the time, made an exception for me to teach.

For a person like me, I think about my journey of starting as just an immigrant. To me, it’s not just going from ESL, it’s thinking about how I was only eight years old coming to the United States to now being in my current position at NOVA. It’s not just about a career here, it’s that the more you achieve there are more challenges.

After that opportunity, I realized that I really liked teaching, so I then pursued my masters. I applied for a linguistics program at George Mason and got in. Initially, I was at Mason full time and worked at NOVA full time. I then applied for Chancellor’s Fellowship, and I got it. Due to that my degree was in linguistics, I then took more courses at Georgetown. Then I saw a position for a full-time faculty position at George Mason, and I started teaching full time there and was a coordinator for the program. I started there in August 2004 until December 2009. Then I came back to NOVA by January 1st, 2010.

Tell us a story about a wonderful experience you have had working at NOVA?

After many years at Mason, I missed the faculty to student interaction I had at NOVA. Every time I leave NOVA, I realized that I keep coming back. I then helped create an online program, and then I create the 201 Arabic courses. By the time we changed from Blackboard to Canvas, we worked with Shaoyu Chi, the Online Instructional Designer, and I recently redesigned all courses again. I look back from the design and think forward to teaching it, I see there are always things to improve since I know what works.

Tell us how working with students has been impactful for you?

NOVA students know that we have more time for them than general four-year institutions. A lot of them come to our faculty members to have human to human interactions. You get to know each students’ passions and their pains.

I get to talk to students and share a reflection of my journey and even talk about things such as work, financial instability, or some family responsibilities. In Summer 2020 when the pandemic hit, it was more apparent that students would have more financial concerns. I decided to establish a grant, Splendor Dream, for students taking Arabic at the Annandale Campus. It was available Fall 2020-Spring 2021. I have students who tell me that they are struggling, and it becomes more of me appreciating how students navigate resources to come to school. It’s not like this new generation is spoiled and register and then not show up for classes -- its wondering why students are having struggles and helping them through it.

A lot of my students are non-traditional and are in their later 20’s or 40’s, and I am so impressed for them to come back to school. I also see a lot of military veterans who served in Iraq or other Arabic countries come and take the courses that I teach. There are times once I tell them that I am Iraqi – they tell me, “Wow, I was just there.” To me having a class full of students wanting to learn Arabic, it makes me so happy. I know learning languages isn’t easy. I love learning from the students as well.

I am also the advisor for critical language scholarships, which is something the State Department created after 9/11. So, I have students who apply for this competitive scholarship, and I really get to see from their essays who are so committed.

Tell us how working with other staff members has been impactful to you?

Since I came in as a staff member, it was great coming back as a faculty member and to see my colleagues there. Judy Gomez, who oversees the language and literature program who was my first contact to the dean. Mary Atkins who oversaw full time English faculty who was there when I started as a staff member,

There were so many people vital for me from the two different lenses I experienced whether as a staff member and a faculty member.

Please let us know some faculty members that you enjoy working with:

So, when I first was hired as a staff member, there were many faculty members in the office space/ bay I was assigned to when I was an administrative assistant. Pam Leggatt, Joe Horowitz and Bruce Leggatt, and Hayib Sosseh were amazing faculty members to work with. Pam Leggett and Madame Susan Baldwin were just exceptional in my development at NOVA.

I remember dearly about Pam and when I met her. At the time, she was a cancer survivor and just seeing her energy, the smile on her face, her laugh – it was really inspiring. I still have gifts from her, and when I left for Mason, she had passed. I was so sad. She was truly an exceptional colleague.

When you sit 8-9 hours in the same office space, you hope for a really great cohort, and I was so happy to be there starting with the colleagues I had. I also want to put a special thanks to Carol Thruston and Alicia Falzon all who encouraged me to pursue my degree, especially Alicia.

Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) is the largest public institution of higher learning in the Commonwealth of Virginia and one of America's largest community colleges. NOVA enrolls nearly 80,000 students at its six campuses in Alexandria, Annandale, Loudoun, Manassas, Springfield (Medical Education Campus) and Woodbridge, through NOVA Online and high school dual enrollment. We offer more than 100 associate degree and certificate programs to help our students reach their academic and professional goals through university transfers and access to the most in-demand careers. At NOVA, we strive to ensure that every student succeeds, every program achieves and every community prospers. For more information about NOVA and its programs or services, visit our website, www.nvcc.eduor call 703.323.3000.